Knowing When it’s Time: A Response to Rabbi Rosalind Gold

La-kol z’man; v’eit l’khol khefetz takhat ha-shamayim…eit s’fod v’eit r’kod…

(To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven…a time to mourn and a time to dance…)

These words from Ecclesiastes 3, so familiar and widely affirmed to us in liturgy and in song, are nonetheless ignored in the common Reform practice of standing and reciting the Kaddish together in its entirety. And they move me to add some additional reflections to Rabbi Rosalind Gold’s moving and cogent argument in the new Winter 2013 edition of Reform Judaism magazine in favor of returning to a more traditional practice of inviting the mourners to rise in recognition of the reality and uniqueness of their experience.

In my own recent years of mourning for my son, Mitch, I appreciated those congregations whose practice invited mourners to be the first to rise, in acknowledgment of our unique status.  Now, if invited to choose, I remain seated (except on yahrzeit or at yizkor), and it feels right, in part for the reasons Rabbi Gold articulated.

However, I think Kohelet (the author and the eponymous source of the Hebrew name of Ecclesiastes) brings home to us another spiritually and psychologically compelling reason to reconsider our communal practice. This is the affirmation of a deeply Jewish truth – that mourning should not be a permanent state of being. Though so much of our teaching and practice is in fulfillment of the mitzvah of zachor, “remember,” our remembrance is not intended to lock us into any one emotional state in perpetuity.

In this regard, I see two risks to our standard practice. First, for those not in a state of mourning, but simply rising and reciting together (perhaps by rote), we put ourselves at jeopardy of desensitizing ourselves to the very different feeling of true grief. Like Rabbi Gold, I think this is true even in remembrance of the Shoah – if our observance is to stand and recite in memory of the six million every time we pray, will we feel the more intense and poignant sensations of the moments dedicated precisely to that memory – particularly Yom HaShoah? Might we even experience confusion in regard to the immediate and acute experience of grief which is healthily experienced when one is a mourner?

This leads to the greater concern. The spiritual messages of our tradition and the wisdom of psychology suggest that grief is a phenomenon which is experienced in stages, and that one of those stages is that of moving beyond the acuity of immediate loss. Two years ago, I wrote in an article titled “Love Is Stronger Than Death”  of the experience of moving from living “in grief” to living “with grief.” This is a healthy process, and when one goes too long without making that transition, it is generally recognized that such a person needs special assistance and support.

The traditional practices and timeline of Jewish mourning confirm this sentiment and sustain it. When the year of Kaddish for my son Mitch came to an end, I experienced a powerful mandate implicit in ceasing to stand and recite in unison – I had begun to return to the act of living, and even preparing to dance, which I did one month later, at the bar mitzvah celebration of our younger son, Nate.

For our spiritual and communal well-being, it is time we reconsider our communal practice of Kaddish. And I pray that for those still in the acute stages of grief, the following words from Isaiah 60, which I have recited at every unveiling at which I’ve officiated, may one day be fulfilled: “Thy sun shall no more go down, nor thy moon withdraw itself; for Adonai shall be thine everlasting light, and the days of thy mourning shall be ended.”

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Rabbi Rex D. Perlmeter

About Rabbi Rex D. Perlmeter

Rabbi Rex Perlmeter was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1985 and went on to serve as spiritual leader of Temple Israel of Greater Miami and the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. After serving on staff at the Union for Reform Judaism for five years, he has gone on to found the Jewish Wellness Center of North Jersey, a practice dedicated to supporting all engaged in "seeking Oneness in body, heart, mind and soul."

14 Responses to “Knowing When it’s Time: A Response to Rabbi Rosalind Gold”

  1. avatar

    Normative RJ practice is not all or nothing, and I don’t see any need for change here. If you are moved to stand, stand. If you are not, don’t. You alone will know which option is right for you, without the need for the denomination to make that decision for you. That is the basis of Reform Judaism. To suggest people cannot make such decisions for themselves, or somehow will suddenly not be able to discern their own emotions, is to give embarrassingly little credit to both our fellow congregants and our movement.

    • avatar

      Absolutely agree, although the practice that makes most sense to me is to invite all those who are currently mourning to stand while the opening meditation and Jahrzeit list are read, and then invite everyone else to stand for the actual prayer. In this way, the mourners are given discrete prominence and recognition during the reading of something solemn and meaningful, while all stand together and hallow God’s Name. I think that’s a perfect happy medium between the once-normative Classical Reform practice of everyone standing, and the traditionalist practice of just mourners standing. I feel SO weird when I attend services where only mourners stand. It feels so wrong to me not to stand, it makes my skin crawl, and a few times I have even walked out. Same with congregations that sit for the Shema.

  2. avatar

    I agree. If I wanted denomination wide decisions wouldn’t I be Conservative? What is right for any individual or even congregation may shift. I prefer it when given the chance to stand first but after that I like that people join me. Ours is a small congregation though and everyone knows each other well. I can see how if one is saying the prayer by rote as mentioned there would be a concern but that concern wouldn’t be fixed by when you stand or if you stand. You reach a certain age and a year when you are not in mourning seems a hard thing to lay your hands on anyway so hopefully it is heartfelt prayer when you pray or why pray?

    As the prayer is one of praise where is the risk? I feel completely different reciting it for my mother than when I stood in support of friends. I don’t need some huge denomination wide intervention here.

    We are cautioned against falling into the “rubrik melodies of yesteryear” already in our current prayer book perhaps the next one should move that to a more central position. Too urge any movement wide change would be to lose touch with what we are. The Reform movement has things it should worry about much more in my opinion.

  3. avatar

    I believe Michael is right. Reform Judaism is about informed choice.

  4. avatar

    At the Reform services in our congregation, I ask those who are remembering someone and who are comfortable in doing so, to rise and say the name of their loved one. Then we read the rest of the names on our list and ask everyone to rise for Kaddish. It works very well.

    At our Conservative services, we ask that only the mourners rise to recite Kaddish.

  5. avatar

    So someone emailed one of these two posts to our shul’s rabbi last week requesting that we try having mourners stand first. At services on Friday night, he announced that because of this we were going to try and adopt the practice of having mourners stand first, all at once (called out as a group), followed by anyone else wishing to stand (called out as a group.) It made the “everyone else” part very, very awkward. We did not repeat it at services the following morning.

    Another issue that has not been addressed here–what happens at a service when there are names but no mourners? Many of us stand during Kaddish for exactly this reason–so that there will always be someone standing for the people who have no one present, or perhaps even no one left, to remember them. To us, we are mourners. By this suggested practice, we are not.

    Would we stand when mourners are asked to stand, which would send an imprecise signal to our fellow congregants? Or would we stand with “everyone else”, thus making it clear that an entire group of our congregational family has no one to remember them? I stand during Kaddish to ensure that no embarrassment accrue to the memory of these people, and there have been times when I have been the only person standing. This suggestion to separate ourselves out, while well meaning I am sure, would serve to ensure that embarrassment.

  6. avatar

    I have been looking for an appropriate way to respond to Rabbi Gold’s article, and I came upon this blog post and the replies. Perhaps this comment comes too late to be read, but in any event, I will post my reaction. I was very upset at Rabbi Gold’s article, and I find it to be just the sort of article that Reform Judaism magazine should not be publishing. The short answer to Rabbi Gold is if she prefers the Conservative practice with respect to the Kaddish, she is welcome to pray at a Conservative temple. I don’t say this out of any animosity. I say it as a life long Reform Jew who is fundamentally troubled by the drift of the Reform Movement closer and closer to Conservative Judaism. Reform will not survive if we are Conservative light. The practice of communal saying of the Kaddish is one of the true jewels of a Reform service. Why would Rabbi Gold assume that no one else is mourning, whether technically or otherwise, when we all stand together to say the Kaddish? Just the opposite is true. Truly, if Reform temples move away from a practice so quintessential to our movement, it really leaves nothing for life long Reform Jews such as myself. It is deeply disturbing that this article was published in our magazine. It is no exaggeration to say that the article is, in essence, a call to destroy Reform Judaism. I don’t know how to communicate this to Rabbi Jacobs and the URJ leadership, but am hoping that they read this blog post or someone will forward this to them.

    As for Rabbi Perlmeter’s post, I am sorry for his loss, but I just don’t find anything in his post that in any way would justify ending Reform practice. There’s no basis at all to say that having the congregation rise together for the Kaddish diminshes the Kaddish or is desensitizing.

    • avatar

      I am in total agreement with Dean’s reply on this issue concerning practices of Reform Judaism. If Rabbi Gold feels uncomfortable with the entire congregation standing during the Mourner’s Kaddish then she should attend a Conservative, Orthodox or even Chabad place of worship. The inclusion of everyone will take away any feelings of embarrassment if there is only one person who is actually in mourning. To have everyone stand provides support to those in actual mourning. Reform Judaism is all about inclusion in every way. I was recently at a fairly Conservative service for a family Bat Mitzvah and did not stand alone for the Mourner’s Kaddish even though it is during the 11 months of my Mother’s passing. I was brought up to stand during the recitation and it felt awkward doing so without the entire congregation. As Reform Jews we need to be very careful about the direction of the movement.

      • avatar

        I am so incredibly grateful for the comments of Dean Brenner and Ronnie Sue Litman. They represent a very important voice in today’s marketplace of ideas in Reform Judaism. I hope they both know about the Society for Classical Reform Judaism, which seeks to be a voice of advocacy for the preservation and creative renewal of historic Progressive Judaism’s ethos, philosophy, worship style, and synagogue culture. We need people like you to speak up!

  7. avatar

    When my father died many years ago, I knew it would be important to him that I say Kaddish for 11 months. At the end of that time, I felt a great joy in having completed a difficult and meaningful task. And part of that completion was the ability to STOP. I am not asking other members of my congregation to sit during the Mourner’s Kaddish, but similarly, I want the privilege of not being asked to stand when I feel the need to stay seated.

  8. avatar

    I agree with Rabbi Gold and only say the Kaddish for my parents. I feel very distrought when a congregant calls out the name of a someone whom he/she did not have any relationship with except to read of their passing in the newspaper. The title of this prayer in our prayer books is “mourner’s kaddish”. It should be reserved for those who have the obligation and are mourners.

    • avatar

      I agree with you, with the caveat that I believe it is quite appropriate for people to say Kaddish (or other prayers related to the deceased) on behalf of anyone with whom they had a relationship, not just parents or immediate family members.

      A grey area would be people whom one does not personally know, but who, for some reason, there seems to be a need to recite Kaddish. For instance, the victims of tragedies, massacres, attacks, or the Shoah, or even deceased important figures such as Debbie Friedman. This stretches the traditional practice of mourning, but why be afraid of that? Both historic tradition and even contemporary Reform responsa, for instance, seem to make clear that Kaddish is only to be said on behalf of Jewish deceased persons, and not even loved ones who were not Jewish. Yet, one or two non-standard Reform prayer books make clear in the English language prelude to the Mourner’s Kaddish that the departed being remembered are of “every race, nation, and faith whose lives have been a blessing to humanity”. Under this rubric, even Nelson Mandela might be include! (And thank God, for he deserves it.)

      We really need to ask ourselves what is to be gained by maintaining rigid traditional boundaries in an area so harmless as prayers said on behalf of the deceased! Kaddish, even under the traditional paradigm of belief in a personal God and a conscious spiritual afterlife, is mainly a prayer to comfort mourners, since God certainly doesn’t have to be TOLD to embrace the righteous tachat kanfei hashekhinah. The irony that gets me is that many of the same people arguing for adherence to tradition in this area in progressive Judaism don’t actually believe in a personal God or a spiritual afterlife at all, so what difference does it make to them? Why not let people decide what is comforting to them, and what they need to happen to cope with death?

  9. avatar

    Maybe its time for some invention. Part of our all-stand tradition in linked to the Holocaust. But we also know that many people are among he forgotten dead. The Holocaust, like the expulsion from Spain, scarred the Jewish people. The echo of 1492 still rings in every synagogue. We have remembered even if the disaster of 1492 is not in our co The Holocaust is still a fresh wound. The survivors are now going. We are losing our first hand witnesses. We are now the trustees of memory.


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